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Chalice

Title: Chalice

Author: Robin McKinley

Publisher: Ace

Pages: 284

Format Read: Kindle

I don’t think I’ve read a novel centred around bees or a beekeeper before, especially not in the fantasy genre.

Chalice is a beautifully strange fantasy standalone that follows Mirasol, a young woman who finds herself in a position of power quite suddenly. Being the Chalice of a demesne is a new experience for her. All she has ever known upto that point is her lonely little cottage, her magical honeys and mysterious bees. But then she is made the Chalice, a part of the ruling elite of her demesne, and she has responsibilities.

And the demesne she lives in has troubles of all kinds. The Master who oversees them all has died, and his brother has taken his place. But the brother in question is a Priest of Fire, and not quite human. Everybody is wary, or afraid, or suspicious of him and his quiet ways. Except Mirasol.

With the troubles plaguing the demesne and agents of their Overlord threating them, Mirasol relies on her honeys and her bees to guide her.

It is not easy to describe the plot of Chalice but I was engrossed reading this one. Yes, there is more telling and less showing in the narrative, and it works well in Chalice. You’re not really sure where this demesne is, you’re not given a map and the lay of the land isn’t overtly explained. How this demesne called Willowlands is ruled isn’t exactly explained either.

Those worked in favour of the novel, at least for me. It reminded me of an old fairy tale, full of understated magic and a mysterious land that is somehow enigmatic and clear at the same time.

Mirasol is inexperienced as the Chalice, but intelligent, and a bit of a loner, and far less judgemental than some of the others she deals with on a daily basis. Her work as beekeeper is fascinating to read about, and her giant bee friends, overlarge and unpredictable, have a personality of their own.

Chalice isn’t overly dark, or gloomy or grim.

It is, as I said before, a strangely beautiful novel, a type of story I haven’t encountered many times before. That made it unique reading for me, and I’m pretty sure I’ll reread this one soon.

In short? Chalice was lovely.

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The First Book of Lankhmar

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Title: The First Book of Lankhmar

Author: Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Gollancz (Fantasy Masterworks)

Pages: 762

Format Read: Paperback

The First Book of Lankhmar is actually a bind-up edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Not all of them, because there’s also a Second Book of Lankhmar. I’d like to talk about the first bind-up edition in this review.

Basically, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are mercenaries from the world of Newhon. Their tales were written over a period of decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The First Book of Lankhmar introduces these two with origin stories and includes many of their escapades in classic sword and sorcery style. There’s adventure and derring-do and a whole lot of scrapes.

Fafhrd is a barbarian warrior from the icily cold and aptly named Cold Corner. He is something of a rebel and he leaves his clan with a seductive stage performer and thief named Vlana. The Mouser is an orphaned wizard’s apprentice who is framed by a duke. He too escapes, with the duke’s daughter.

In ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar,’ the third story in the book, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet in the foggy, decadent city of Lankhmar. They become fast friends, and from then on, adventure follows adventure.

Each of the stories in The First Book of Lankhmar is distinct and only loosely connected with the others. The mercenaries find underwater cities, are recruited by the apparently all-knowing mages Sheelba and Ningauble, and deal with tragedy and death, a misogynistic guild of thieves and shrines to dark powers. They also travel to parallel dimensions and find themselves in ancient Greece. The story I found especially intriguing in this collection is ‘The Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ There’s a play of illusion and greed, and creatures from other worlds selling glittering objects that are not what they seem.

As far as characterization goes, well, it is rather basic. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are unique but a lot more emphasis is laid on their adventures. Also…there aren’t many female characters here, and if they do make an appearance, they are usually unidimensional. The stories are only loosely connected to each other, and sometimes the past adventures of these two heroes are described in a sentence.

The book is divided into sections, but there should have been a table of contents at the beginning. Or an index at the end. The edition I have has neither, although the sections have their contents listed.

Even so, these stories are very entertaining and fast paced in an action packed, old world style.

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The Crown Tower

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Title: The Crown Tower  

Author:  Michael J. Sullivan

Publisher: Orbit

Pages: 414

Format Read: Paperback

Now this was a lot of fun.

The Crown Tower is about Hadrian Blackwater, a young soldier trying to escape his past. He is given a task by the venerable Arcadius, loremaster of a prestigious college – to steal a book. Naturally, he cannot steal the book by himself, and the professor decides to team him up with Royce Melbourn, a surly, unapproachable assassin.

Also naturally, Hadrian can’t stand Royce. The feeling is mutual.

Both these characters have nothing to lose, and they are polar opposites. It would give them each no grief if the other died. Then again, there might be a thread of similarity between the two that could lead to friendship. Except they are too thickheaded to see it. All they have to do is survive each other’s company, scale the largest and most formidable tower in the world without getting killed, get the book, and return.

There is something delightfully old-fashioned about The Crown Tower, and the fluid, simple prose makes it extremely readable. Hadrian and Royce are distinctly unique personalities – one’s upright, or thinks he is. The other has no regrets. About anything. At least he says so.

There’s also Gwen, a runaway who finds that kernel of courage to escape an oppressive, exploitative life. Her tale is woven seamlessly into the book. Arcadius is…well, Arcadius. You get the impression that he knows more than he lets on, and his half-revelations do get frustrating.

There’s a fair bit of humour in The Crown Tower as well, and I found the banters between Royce and Hadrian engaging. You really cannot dislike either of them.

The Crown Tower is also a novel of self-discovery; for Royce and Hadrian and Gwen, even Pickles, the maybe-street-urchin. The theft and the book are mere hooks in a study of human nature. There’s not much sorcery going on here it seems – and the world is at once strange and familiar enough as it is.

I understand this novel and its companion The Rose and the Thorn are prequels (that were written later) to the Riyria Revelations. And although I haven’t read the books in the Riyria Revelations yet (I hope to) there’s nothing in The Crown Tower that makes it confusing or incomplete – these are good introductions to the world.

It was a solid read that I enjoyed.

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The Toymakers

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Title: The Toymakers  

Author: Robert Dinsdale

Publisher: Del Rey

Pages: 468

Format Read: Paperback

The concept of toys coming alive has always been a fascinating one to me. As I child, I wondered if they’d come out to play at night, as Enid Blyton’s books suggested. And Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit is one of the sweetest creatures I have encountered in fiction.

As for The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale – this is a book that takes the magic of living toys and crafts it into a beautiful tale.

Papa Jack’s Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is a magical toyshop full of secrets, of toy soldiers and dollhouses and ballerinas eager to dance. And also Sirius, the little patchwork dog and my favourite character by far.

Young Cathy Wray, distraught, confused and pregnant, runs away from home and finds herself a job at the Emporium. There she meets the bearlike Papa Jack, master toymaker, and his sons, Kaspar and Emil. Both young men take an interest in Cathy, but it is Kaspar who interests her the most. The Emporium is a place of wonder when it opens at wintertime, a sanctuary of childhood dreams and hope.

However, as Cathy settles in to her new life, she discovers that all is not it seems. Within the enigmas of the Emporium is the bitter sibling rivalry between Kaspar and Emil. Or rather, it is Emil’s low self-esteem and his burgeoning envy of Kaspar and his enchanting toys. His inner turmoil is realistically portrayed. Even Cathy, practical and kind hearted, finds it a bit difficult to deal with Emil and his many moods.

The Emporium, for all its magical toys, is not spared by the two World Wars either. Kasper enlists to fight and returns changed. The book deals with the trauma soldiers go through in a poignant way. Some of their distress and the futility of war is transferred to the toy soldiers. Both Emil and Kaspar make them, and both have very different ideas about war. The brothers’ Long War with each other drives most of the book, especially when the toy soldiers become self-aware and thoroughly erratic.

I kind of wish some of that was shorter.

As time passes, the Emporium changes. There is war and strife and growing families, all of it surrounded by the toys.

The Toymakers is a book I am so glad I read.

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Od Magic

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Title: Od Magic

Author:  Patricia Mckillip

Publisher: Gollancz (S.F. Gateway)

Pages: 328

Format Read: Kindle

Od Magic is a fantasy novel about a school of wizardry and its mysterious founder, the giant Od. Nobody has seen her for decades, but all that happens in the book eventually finds its way to her.

Brenden Vetch is appointed to the school as a gardener. He has powers that confound the wizards of the school, he has powers that confuse himself. He hears plants think, or something like that. The novel starts with him, and then he’s not around for a long time.

Od Magic is told from multiple points of view. There is Arneth, a member of the city watch who is assigned to find a travelling magician in the streets of the magical Twilight Quarter. Then there is Mistral, daughter of the said magician. And Yar Ayrwood, a wizard at Od’s school, and Sulys, the daughter of the king. Brenden again, feeling bewildered. And an annoying apprentice who turns up at the oddest times, an Elver.

The writing is of course lush and beautiful and Mckillip’s descriptions, especially of the Twilight Quarter, are truly magical. The shifting points of view are a bit confusing though, since you’re not given enough time to really understand a character’s motivations. Because by then you are reading about someone else entirely.

The novel’s structure is fairly simple and the power struggles of both king and countryman are easy to guess. Which was refreshing. I liked it precisely because of its simplicity.

Strangely though, it is hard to summarise the plot, and it does seem a little weak at times. There is self-discovery and a magic system full of conjuration and divination. What ties the characters together is Od, naturally. She seems to guide them, forcing them to question themselves and the inflexibility of their king, without being present. Also, the magician of the Twilight Quarter, Tyramin, is something of a magnet – he’s the reason for a lot of chaos in the kingdom of Kelior. Except nobody can find him.

Od Magic, is, I think, a whimsical and dreamlike tale.

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Red Sister

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Title: Red Sister

Author:  Mark Lawrence

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Pages: 499

Format Read: Paperback

This was a dark and engrossing read. Young Nona Grey lives in a harsh, unforgiving world, and at eight she is accused of murder. Children are not spared punishment and she finds herself condemned…until a strange abbess turns up and enrols her in the Convent of Sweet Mercy. There, Nona begins her training to become a nun – but not one dedicated to the scriptures. Red Sisters are trained to become exceptional assassins.

The story is unsettling and violent, and the children of the Convent of Sweet Mercy aren’t exactly allowed to be children. They are rigorously trained and they speak a lot like adults. A little immersion breaking, maybe, but not wholly unexpected given the environment they live in.

Nona Grey, the protagonist, manages to seem both childlike and precocious. She is also exceptionally skilled and an enigma to her peers. She is wildly unpredictable and holds friendship in high regard – but not all her friends are as she believes them to be. A strange character to be sure, and her emotions run raw and visceral as she discovers her abilities and navigates her new life in the Convent. This isn’t a life of luxury…learning alchemical poisons might just mean getting poisoned yourself. By the teacher.

And of course, she has been accused of murder. That is an event that follows her throughout the story, because she has made enemies at eight. They stalk her and try to seize her. Nona, child as she is, is not without her nightmares and moments of doubt. She does not run away from her inner conflicts and is forced to confront them. Also, strange things are happening around her and she finds herself drawn into conflict.

There is also some science fiction here that I enjoyed. The world of Abeth, for example, and its peculiar moon. Stories of how the current inhabitants arrived. I’m not going into spoilers, but these bits were fascinating to read about.

Red Sister is part of a series and you do get the feeling that there is a lot more to be said as the story continues in the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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Borderline

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Title: Borderline

Author:  Mishell Baker

Publisher: Saga Press

Pages: 390

Format Read: Paperback

It’s been a while since I’ve read urban fantasy and Borderline is intriguing. For one, the protagonist Millicent Roper, or Millie, is an absolutely unexpected protagonist. She is in a facility at the start of the book after a failed suicide attempt. That attempt has left her with two prosthetic legs.

And she also has Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD.

In short, she’s a bit of a mess and she knows it. She is also fascinating. When a mysterious visitor by the name of Caryl Vallo drops in at the facility and offers Millie a chance to join the Arcadia Project, she takes it. It is, among other things, a second chance at life, and an opportunity to leave the facility, and to experience something new.

Never mind that the Arcadia Project is a shadowy organization that keeps watch over fey visitors from another dimension. And that they recruit members with a history of mental illness. It’s a strange and bizarre situation Millie finds herself in once she joins and takes up residence with the rest of their crew. To start with, Millie is partnered with the unpredictable Teo and asked to find a certain actor who has gone missing. He is also a member of the Seelie Court of the fey. In short, a nobleman.

Trying to find that missing actor opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets and magic and capricious fey, gates and glamour. And a potential war between humans and fey.

Borderline is filled with a cast of interesting characters. Millie for one is prone to extreme moods and irrational thoughts, but she is creative and extremely intelligent. She has problems and she acknowledges them, and the book does do a good job of presenting her issues with BPD. And her prosthetics. She is also prone to extreme mood swings and she can be pretty judgemental– and that makes her more believable.

Overall, I thought Borderline fun and engaging, fast paced and really quite complex.

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Lud-in-the-Mist

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Title: Lud-in-the-Mist  

Author: Hope Mirrlees

Publisher: Prologue Fantasy

Pages: 290

Format Read:  Kindle

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside…”

– Hope Mirrlees in ‘Lud-in-the-Mist’

Originally published in 1926, Lud-in-the-Mist is a delightful novel set in the mysterious Dorimare, with its capital Lud-in-the-Mist. This is a charming, well ordered place, with noble families and strange physicians, magic in the air, and secrets.

For Lud-in-the-Mist is closer to fairyland than the inhabitants would like to admit, and the presence of the fairy folk startles them, and even frightens them – to the point of not speaking about them. Fairy fruit is anathema, because it induces strange dreams and a longing for that moonlit land beyond the realm of the mundane. And, as Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Dorimare of the prestigious Chanticleer family discovers, fairy magic also comes in the form of music. Or, in this case, with a haunting note from a certain musical instrument he had tried to learn in his childhood.

For the citizens for Dorimare, the world of Faerie is a world to be avoided. It is the centre of magic and the supernatural and all things unseen. Whereas in Dorimare, logic, reason, and the prosaic everyday form the basis of existence. But magic will not be shut out so easily. It seeps into their lives and the suspense builds up as more and more folks slip into its fold.

And for Nathaniel Chanticleer, the note almost drives him mad. And then, his son is affected by that peculiar malaise drawing him to Faerie.

‘Lud-in-the-Mist’ reads much like a fairy tale, with beautiful prose and lyrical descriptions. The tension is palpable as the rational minds of Dorimare struggle to deal with the supernatural. And they try to deny its presence by ignoring it. Which does more harm than good.

This is a slow moving, elegantly crafted novel.

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Wildwood Dancing

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Book:  Wildwood Dancing

Author:  Juliet Marillier

Publisher: Knopf

Pages:  432

Format Read: Paperback

Jenica, or Jena, fifteen and the second oldest of five sisters, has a secret. She and her sisters know of a portal that opens during the Full Moon. And that portal, in all its magic, leads them, and her, to a Dancing Glade, where faeries gather for their moonlit revel. There is dancing, and music, and, as Jena discovers as the story progresses, hidden secrets and danger lurking in the shadows.

Set in Transylvania, “Wildwood Dancing” vividly depicts the old castle Jena and her sisters live in, and the woodlands surrounding the castle are steeped in magic and folklore. I found the setting mysterious, and Marillier’s prose fluid. Jena’s father leaves his daughters for a few months on the doctor’s orders – he is ill, and needs rest away from home, somewhere warmer. That leaves Jena, who must manage his business and his merchant trade, until her rather bigoted and narrow minded cousin Cezar arrives to take it all away from her.

All that keeps Jena going is the promise of the Other Kingdom and its Dancing Glade. Until that too causes her worry when her older sister Tatiana decides to pursue a dark suitor from the realm beyond. There’s nothing Jena can say, or do, to prevent that forbidden romance.

Jena finds solace in Gogu, her best friend. And a frog. A talking frog, except nobody can hear him other than her.

Woven through the story is also a childhood tragedy, that of Cezar’s cousin Costi who drowned in the nearby Deadwash. His death has apparently driven Cezar to near madness and a maniacal need for control. Whoever heard of girls doing business anyway? That’s his argument for anything Jena tries to do. Besides, she’s too assertive for his tastes, and so, naturally, in his own words, a shrew.

I found this book deceptively simple. The story has many threads running through it – enchantments, lost lives, romance, mystery and magic – and all of them are brought together to form a strange and unexpected conclusion. Cezar is incredibly annoying and believes in the inferiority of the female mind. Jena, intelligent and mature beyond her years tries to make the best of a horrible situation. Tatiana is…well. Tatiana is simply in the throes of her romance. Gogu, Jena’s frog, is sweet tempered and supportive, and not quite what he seems.

“Wildwood Dancing” is an enchanting book with a beautiful cover. I’m glad I read this one.

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Caraval

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Book: Caraval

Author: Stephanie Garber

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Pages: 416

Format Read: Kindle

All Scarlett of the Conquered Isle of Trisda ever wanted was an invitation to the magical circus-carnival called Caraval. For her sister, for course. For years, she wrote to the Master of Caraval, Legend, and he never wrote back. Until that final letter – she was getting married, and she asked him not to invite her.

So he did.

“Caraval” opens with Scarlett’s series of letters, beginning with her hopeful childlike note, and the first chapter ends with her reserved, after engagement notice, to the Caraval Master. That was intriguing in itself, because those letters reveal that Caraval is hard to attend, but it is magical enough to make a child, then teenager, then young woman, continue trying to get an invitation.

But when she does get the invitation, Scarlett has other problems. Her father is abusive and thinks nothing of whipping his daughters. Her younger sister Donatella has grown breathlessly daring, and has found a strange sailor called Julian for her current dalliance. Scarlett herself is engaged to a man she has never met, but he has sent letters to her that sound sweet and romantic. Of course, all she wants is to get out of her father’s household, and take Donatella with her.

And then Donatella disappears, apparently gone to Caraval on her own, and Scarlett, panicked, must find her before their father does. The only company she has is the infuriating and irrepressible Julian.

I found “Caraval” suspenseful and original, and very magical. Caraval, where Scarlett eventually finds herself, is part carnival, part circus, all of it dreamworld, with altered timescales and mysterious actors all playing a part, and players – like her – caught in the web of the Caraval Master’s games. Scarlett, after a point, has no idea who’s real and who’s not, and no idea who to trust. All that keeps her going is her desire to see her sister again and keep her safe.

This book does keep you guessing until a surprising conclusion (not exactly subtle, that ending, and a little farfetched, but that is a minor quibble). The writing style is lyrical, and suited to the theme and setting of the book, a little strong on metaphor. The characters are well drawn out and quite memorable actually, especially Scarlett and Julian.

“Caraval” is mysterious and strange, and a book I really liked.